PBS' 'Korea' is flawed but still fascinating


November 12, 1990|By Michael Hill

PBS started its fall season with a miniseries about the Civil War. Now it weighs into this sweep month with a six-hour look at the Korean conflict. While the story it tells is nearly as compelling, unlike Ken Burns' "The Civil War," this production does not come close to doing it justice.

The six hours of "Korea: The Unknown War" will air in three two-hour segments on consecutive nights, beginning this evening at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.

Just to show the shamefully lowly status that the Korean War has in our national consciousness, this is not even an American production. Britain's Thames Television made it and Boston's WGBH -- the PBS station that did such an excellent job documenting the Vietnam War -- only modified it a bit for domestic consumption.

The quality is deficient on many fronts. There's no attempt to create a mood or feeling, only a doggedly straightforward narrative that is on the level of elementary school filmstrips. The interviews with a variety of experts -- combat veterans, former commanders, bureaucrats, historians, journalists -- while an invaluable addition to the video archives, were raggedly filmed or videotaped, all harshly lighted, some out of focus. Their comments are poorly integrated into the ongoing narrative.

The compelling archival footage of the brutal fighting is unimaginatively used. What music there is, almost all of the martial variety, rarely adds anything but distraction. Little attempt is made to display the war as part of the larger fabric of the state of America and the world in those years.

But, for all those flaws, eventually the sheer force of the story becomes irresistible and "Korea: The Unknown War" adds immensely to our understanding of this virtual black hole in our history, obscured by both Vietnam and the McCarthy era, overshadowed by World War II and its aftermath.

As you watch tonight's two episodes, which chronicle the development of the conflict and the initial surge of the North Korean troops as they rolled over the South, it is hard not to be struck by the many parallels to Vietnam.

Yet even during that war, those facts were rarely recalled. Twenty years later, Korea was still seen simplistically as a defeat of communist aggression, instead of a foreshadowing of the complex mix of nationalism and ideology which was to prove so tragic for the United States in Vietnam.

Tomorrow's two hours delve into Douglas MacArthur's brilliant invasion at Inchon and the decision to invade North Korea that brought China into the war. Wednesday, the subject is the stalemate and the ultimate peace that resulted.

The Korean War deserves better than "Korea: The Unknown Conflict." But it is a start, and perhaps it will attract more creative documentarians to this fascinating, important piece of our history.

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